INDIANAPOLIS – Matt Ryan had been in the building for a short time, but quickly came to grips with Priority 1.
The message was delivered by owner Jim Irsay.
“Jim made it very clear at the beginning of the year what he expects from all of us,’’ Ryan said Wednesday.
Beat the Tennessee Titans and regain supremacy of the AFC South. The Colts last won the division in 2014.
It wasn’t a heart-to-heart between an irritated owner and his latest quarterback, but a mandate given in front of the entire team.
“It was the same message y’all got, you know what I mean?’’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said.
Irsay reminded everyone how the Titans had staked their claim on the AFC South, and used his franchise as a steppingstone to that end.
During a 22-game stretch in the series – from 2008 to ’19 – the Colts absolutely owned the Titans. They won 19 of 22, which gave long-time franchise icon Reggie Wayne fodder for his appearance during the 2019 NFL Draft, which was smack dab in Titans Country. He was booed lustily in Nashville while announcing the Colts’ 2nd-round pick.
Wayne was ready for the vitriol.
“C’mon Tennessee,’’ he taunted the crowd. “Y’all done played the Colts 20 times in 10 years and you won three games. Stop it! Stop it!’’
That was then, and this is now.
And now, the Titans have flipped the script, albeit with a smaller sample size. They’ve won four of the last five meetings and captured the last two AFC South titles.
That needs to change, Irsay insisted, beginning with the Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“There’s no question the dominance they’ve had in the division,’’ he said Wednesday. “You respect that. They’re the reigning champs until proven otherwise.
“We know it’s going to be a fight in the division. It’s a big game for us.’’
Irsay’s tone was more muted than when he summoned his coaches and scouts – more than 40 individuals – to his Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance office after the Colts’ week 3 loss to the Titans in Nashville last season. It dropped them to 0-3.
He described it as a come-to-Jesus meeting.
“It was about Tennessee kicking our ass because that’s all they do is kick our ass,’’ Irsay said during the NFL owners meetings in March. “I don’t hide from the facts that are out there competitively. I want to put them right in front of us.
“You have to know where your nemeses lie.’’
That again was a message Irsay conveyed to his players during the offseason.
Beat the Titans. Win the AFC South.
“I’ve talked to the players about the division,’’ Irsay said Wednesday. “We always emphasize the division going back 20-plus years. Winning the division is always the first goal.
“The Titans are the reigning champions and Jacksonville is playing awfully well. The division’s wide open.’’
The Colts’ schedule was supposed to be conducive to gaining early favorable position in the AFC South. Five of the first seven games are inside the division. Instead of taking advantage of that, the Colts opened with a 20-20 tie at Houston and a 24-0 loss at Jacksonville.
“Tying one and losing one doesn’t sit well,’’ Irsay said, “but we know this team is going to get better. We just have to protect Matt Ryan.’’
Nothing will be determined Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the players understand the consequences if the Titans extend their recent success in the series. The rematch comes quickly, Oct. 23 in Nashville.
“We understand who has dominated this division for the last couple of years,’’ Ryan said. “In order to get where you want to go, you’ve got to beat some of the best teams in the league and (the Titans) were the 1-seed in the AFC last year and have won the division the last couple of years.’’
Over the last 10 years, the Colts are 35-20-1 in the AFC South. Houston is next at 29-25-1 followed by the Titans (27-27) and Jacksonville (18-37). But since having their 17-game division winning streak snapped in a 51-16 loss at Jacksonville in week 13 of 2015, the Colts are a lackluster 20-19-1 inside the division.
They’re 7-6-1 in the AFC South the last two-plus seasons. The Titans are 10-2.
Arguably a defining moment in Reich’s career as the Colts coach came against the Titans, in Nashville. In the final week of 2018 – the final game of the NFL’s regular season – they earned a wild-card playoff berth with a 33-17 victory.
As for that Priority 1 directive, Indy hasn’t sat atop the division since back-to-back titles in 2013-14. The last seven championships have been divvied up among Houston (four), Tennessee (two) and the Jaguars (one).
“It’s about taking back the AFC South,’’ said center Ryan Kelly. “You can’t get in the playoffs and can’t go far as you want unless you do that first. It’s been a little bit since we’ve had that.
“Taking care of business this week would be the first step in that.’’
Irsay’s AFC South/Titans message still resonates with Buckner.
“He said that they had been owning the division and owning us the last couple of times we’ve been playing. And it’s true,’’ he said. “They’ve gotten the better of it. Everybody’s tired of it.
“Obviously guys have a lot of pride. Enough’s enough. Got to put an end to it. You can talk all you want, but in the end you’ve got to go out there and do it.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.